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Chemehuevi Indians - Ethnography & Ethnohistory

Social Structure

That the Chemehuevis had something that resembled a moiety system associated with the ownership of land in demonstrated in two hereditary songs, the Mountain Sheep Song and the Deer Song, each of which described trips through the mountains and valleys along the Colorado River. Those who had the right to sing the song had the right to hunt in the area and in that sense owned it. The songs were inherited patrilineally, but after the Euro-Americans came a man might inherit his song from his mother's father if his father were a non-Indian and thereby had no song, and, therefore, presumably no right to use the economic assets thereof.

Groups of Chemehuevis had a right to hunt in a Mountain Sheep area only if a man who was an owner of the Mountain Sheep Song was part of the group. The same was true of the Deer Song. The Mountain Sheep Song covered an area west of the Colorado River, and the Deer Song, east of the river. The Salt Song was associated with the Deer Song, and was often owned by those who owned the Deer Song, but it involved both sides of the river. Each song had subdivisions, and a subgroup might own only a subdivision of a song, and a specific version of it. A person was not to marry within the group that owned the same version (Laird 1976:3-19), a fact that gave the Chemehuevi something of an exogamous moiety system like that maintained by their western neighbors, the Serrano and the Cahuilla.

Only a person who owned a song could sing it ritually, but others could sing it in non-ritual contexts. There were other songs associated with hereditary hunting rights, but they each belonged to a group of related persons and were not subdivided (1976:18-19).

Laird maintains that the Chemehuevi were rather loosely matrilocal,3 with people being able to move from group to group as they needed to-a useful strategy in a desert habitat where the quantity of food resources was variable. A band consisting of two or three families traveled together and had a spokesman. It took its name from a place where its crops were planted, and to which it returned each year.

(3) They may have been bilateral bilocal, as other scholars maintain.

Each of the three main groups of Chemehuevi had High Chiefs who spoke the "Chief's Language" and had a duty "to set a good example and to teach his people a moral code, long since lost," and guided his people in peace. The High Chiefs and their relatives owned the Talking Song (also called the Crying Song), which was in the Chiefs' Language, and was sung only at funerals and Mourning Ceremonies (1976:24-29).

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